Is Mali the ‘next Afghanistan’? No.

The title of this post includes a question I’m seeing more and more, and it reflects the growing concern in Washington, Paris, and African capitals that the security situation in northern Mali is spiraling out of control. In this kind of environment, bad news tends to echo loudly and quickly. The most recent example of this is the strong reaction in the international press to an interview Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou gave to France 24 this week, in which he said that Afghans and Pakistanis were in Mali training fighters, in addition to confirming that French hostages held for nearly a year and a half by AQIM were in “good health” and still alive. This news has garnered quite a bit of attention, especially in the Francophone media, though it should be noted that RFI reported the presence Pakistani trainers in Timbuktu and in Kidal a month ago, to considerably less attention. Still, this and other signs of the degradation in the security environment in northern Mali and the growth of AQIM have spurred speculation about whether or not northern Mali was becoming a “West African Afghanistan“, a new Somalia, or a jumping-off point for terrorist attacks elsewhere.

While I think some of this concern is warranted, I think some of this language and concern may be, for the moment, a bit overwrought, as I will explain in this piece. This post is my attempt to sort through some of the current popular attitudes about the security situation in northern Mali, the very real risks to regional and international security that may be looming in the north, and the equally real constraints on militant groups attempting to impose shari’ah in northern Mali or project force beyond Mali’s already porous (or nonexistent) borders.

First, the bad news

Long before the Tuareg rebellion and the birth of Ansar Al-Din, AQIM and its predecessor the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) were using Malian territory to strike other countries. The period from 2005-2011, in addition to seeing a number of kidnappings of Westerners in the Sahel, saw attacks against military, government and foreign targets (including the murder of French and American citizens) in Mauritania, attacks against border guards and customs agents in Algeria, and similar attacks and confrontations in Niger. During this period, AQIM’s involvement in kidnapping for ransom (KFR) and various smuggling networks may have netted upwards of 200 million euro – though these numbers are very fuzzy, and do not take into account the money the group has had to spend to simply operate and survive in one of the harshest environments on earth.

More recently, the AQIM “splinter” group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), based in Mali, has conducted a suicide bombing in the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset and kidnapped seven Algerian diplomats in the city of Gao. Moreover, foreign fighters appear to have reinforced MUJWA, AQIM, and Ansar Al-Din. The latter group in particular has admitted to welcoming fighters from Somalia, Niger, Tunisia,  and elsewhere (though of course this information has not been confirmed independently). AQIM, according to unconfirmed reports, has been reinforced by “Maghrebin” jihadists and steered others, in particular Mauritanians, to Ansar Al-Din. And while reports of more than 100 Boko Haram fighters being present in Gao may be an exaggeration, there is enough circumstantial evidence of their presence in Mali (and the alleged presence of AQIM members in Nigeria) to conclude that the groups may be tightening their links.

So to sum up, we now have a situation where at least three-to-four jihadist or hardline Islamist groups are active and “in possession” of much of northern Mali, including the cities of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. These groups appear to be operationally active and training new fighters for different regional militant organizations, and possibly securing areas of operation for future training or attacks in the region. This is not to mention the role that these groups, in particular AQIM, appear to be playing in enforcing a harsh interpretation of shari’ah law and supporting Ansar Al-Din, which seems to have quickly accumulated a suspiciously large amount of money, weapons and personnel, especially given the much smaller size and less diverse composition of the organization – an issue I previously discussed here – when it was created late last year. Regardless, AQIM and its key leadership in the Sahel are almost certainly active in northern Mali, and will likely stay there, whether they remain deeply involved with Ansar Al-Din or pull back to focus on jihadist activity while allowing Ansar Al-Din to worry about the implementation of shari’ah in Mali, per the recent instructions of the group’s Kabylia-based leader Abdelmalek Droukdel.

This is not the Afghanistan you are looking for

Setting aside for a moment the causes of concern in northern Mali, there are a number of structural and local particularities that may inhibit the emergence of northern Mali as a new “safe haven” for jihadist groups. For one thing, northern Mali is a rather isolated place, with large, relatively barren distances between population centers. This makes it difficult, though clearly not impossible, to bring fighters into the country, and could put groups of fighters at risk if they venture out of the cities, as happened in March when Mauritanian aircraft attacked a convoy they believed to include AQIM members, including Yahya Abu Al-Hammam, the head of one of AQIM’s sub-units, who is reportedly present in Timbuktu. While it is unclear if the aircraft actually found their target, Western aircraft may have more luck, if they end up getting involved in the fighting (NB: This is not an expression of support for the use of manned or unmanned aircraft in the Sahel, simply an observation).

This isolation also means that it is difficult to re-supply fighters, whether with fuel, food, or ammunition. While smuggling networks for these materials are present and well-established in the Sahel, Mali’s neighbors can damage militant groups by tightening their grips on these smuggling routes or by attacking jihadists who expose themselves while trying to obtain supplies. This happened last month, when a rapid Algerian helicopter strike reportedly decimated a column of MUJWA fighters who tried to steal two fuel trucks in Tinzawaten, on the Mali-Algeria border.

In this vein, it is worth keeping in mind that while Afghanistan in the 90’s was bordered by at least one state that tolerated or may have even supported the Taliban, who then gave shelter to al-Qaeda and the numerous jihadist groups who used the country as a training base, northern Mali is surrounded by countries that are not exactly disposed to welcoming a jihadist-controlled state next door. Mauritania has repeatedly attacked AQIM targets in Mali, Niger has been vocally pushing for an intervention to root out AQIM and its allies, and while Algeria has been reticent to commit military forces to a foreign intervention, the Tinzawaten incident demonstrates the latter’s willingness to use force – potentially across the border – if its interests are threatened. And behind all of this is the possibility of European (really French) or American involvement in providing logistical or intelligence support for an ECOWAS or African Union force or direct airstrikes. While such a foreign intervention may have a very negative impact on the overall security situation in northern Mali, something will eventually have to give. As former diplomat and Mali watcher Todd J. Moss told Reuters last week, “Western policymakers will absolutely not allow a jihadist safe haven” in Mali.

Moreover, I believe that Ansar Al-Din in particular and those supporting it remain limited on a local level. While residents of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu appear to have grudgingly welcomed the security and harsh justice Ansar Al-Din brought in the wake of the departure of the Malian army from the north, that appears to be changing. Protests have broken out in all three cities in the wake of the implementation of shari’ah (most recently in Kidal), the banning of soccer and smoking in Gao, and the destruction of a sacred holy site and a national monument in Timbuktu. After suppressing these protests Ansar has pulled back, especially in Timbuktu and Kidal; in Timbuktu, where the group has already put a local face on its actions, Ansar has attempted to show their appreciation for and willingness to protect the city’s patrimony. And in Kidal, after receiving significant pushback for having assaulted female protesters,  Ansar reportedly chose not to intervene during the second days’ protests. While Ansar Al-Din has been able to keep a lid on such protests so far, it is likely that these will grow if the group continues to pursue the implementation of shari’ah in the public sphere. And if protests continue to break out, the group will be faced with a hard choice between allowing the protests or suppressing them, given that violence may provoke protesters further, or push local notables influential within the organization – such as Ifoghas “chief executive” Alghabass Ag Intallah in Kidal – to push Ansar to moderate its behavior.

These local tensions could become more acute in an environment where multiple armed groups could eventually form in opposition. To put a spin on the Weberian expression, for the moment Ansar Al-Din and AQIM, dominant in terms of armament and manpower, have a monopoly on the threat of force in northern Mali. They have used this threat that the two groups used to push the MNLA and then the primarily Arab FNLA out of Timbuktu, as well as to assert their authority in Gao.

However, Ansar Al-Din and AQIM have so far resisted using anything more than targeted force, showing a potential unwillingness to unleash full-scale civil war in northern Mali. And other challengers to their authority may lurk in the wings; the National Liberation Front of the Azawad (FNLA) has threatened to kick AQIM out of Timbuktu; former Malian army commander El Hajj Gamou has formed his own group, the Republican Movement for the Restoration of the Azawad (MRRA); and another group purportedly composed of Songhaï and “black Tuareg”, the Movement of Patriots for Resistance and the Liberation of Timbuktu (MPRLT), has also promised to retake Timuktu. And the first clashes between Ansar Al-Din and MNLA fighters may have taken place in Kidal this week, though a number of people have since denied that any fighting took place. And the Songhai militia Ganda Iso’s members remain in and around Gao, even if the group fell apart after its leader was killed in combat with the MNLA in March.

For the moment, all of the groups mentioned except the MNLA exist primarily on paper, and the MNLA, reportedly lacking in arms and ammunition, has mostly cooperated or at least avoided conflict with Ansar Al-Din, to the point of briefly merging and then splitting with Ansar at the end of May. Still, there is the possibility that one or more armed groups could emerge to challenge or at least provoke Ansar Al-Din and its jihadist allies, especially if armed opposition groups receive support from abroad or from regional entities. Such opposition would again leave Ansar Al-Din and its allies in a position where they might have to actually use force against local populations, which could drastically alter the delicate balance of power and push local populations into open opposition. This would dramatically complicate life for Ansar Al-Din, and could potentially make the “safe haven” in northern Mali a bit less so.

None of this is to undermine or downplay the severity of the threat posed by the security situation in northern Mali, as the presence of hardline militant groups could threaten regional and international security, not to mention the security of the local populations forced to live under their harsh rule. Rather, it is important to keep in mind when analyzing the situation in northern Mali the important limits on hardline militant groups’ freedom of operation. While these factors may not be definitive in the long run, they will be important in shaping how these groups react to endogenous and exogenous pressure in the weeks and months to come.

al-Nur’s Vision for a Future Egypt


During the first round of Egypt’s presidential election in May, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the candidate chosen by the Salafi parties’ leadership, was defeated. The loss was a disappointment for the Salafis who, with 123 of 454 seats of parliament, had higher expectations. Nevertheless, the three-party Salafi political coalition, led by “al Nur” remains a formidable force in Egyptian politics, the second largest bloc in parliament after the Muslim Brotherhood, which controls 47 percent of the seats. Whether post-Mubarak Egypt remains a presidential or changes to a parliamentary system of government, within the People’s Assembly, the Salafi coalition is poised to become a key power broker either as a spoiler or swing vote in the legislature. What are the Salafis’ priorities and what kinds of policies do they advocate?


Al-Nur is the political arm of its al-Da’wah al-Salafiyyah (DS), an Islamic propagation group that first began organizing in the 1970s, and after clashes with the Muslim Brotherhood in 1980, institutionalized by establishing itself as an association at Alexandria University. While an ongoing presence in Egypt, the Salafis are newcomers to politics, long believing democracy to be in contravention of Islam. Indeed, DS Vice President Sheikh Yasser Burhami issued his edict permitting participating in democracy in 2010, and Al-Nur was only founded in June 2011. Emad Abdel Ghaffour, who originally joined DS in 1977, currently leads the party. During the uprising that deposed former president Hosni Mubarak, DS was against the street protests putting them outside the revolutionary moment, but gaining from it at the same time. This was likely due to their previously apolitical nature, which as a result allowed them not to be harassed by security like the more radical al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (GI), one of the other Salafi parties, which remains a US-designated foreign terrorist organization, and a member al-Nur’s political coalition.

Political Program

Al-Nur lays out its main pillars of its project on its website,  The top goal is ending the endemic corruption of the Mubarak regime, but the list of priorities is long. Like any political platform it should not all be taken completely at face value, but instead as an idealistic view.

Islam, the State, and Reform

Al-Nur not surprisingly believes that shari’ah should be “the source of legislation.”  At the same time, however, Al-Nur calls for a separation of powers, fundamental rights of free speech, assembly, press, and association. It’s unclear how Al Nur would intend to implement these seemingly contradictory goals. The party also calls for equal rights for Coptic Christians. As al-Nur spokesman, Mohammed Nour stated last December, “touching one hair on a Copt’s head violates our program.” Yet their understanding of equal rights differs from that of a Western conception. In December 2011, stated that Copts did not have the right to hold office. Further, with regard to Baha’is, they would not be allowed to celebrate their festivals or be marked as Muslim on ones national ID card.

On women’s rights one also has to look deeper than what they state on its views of violence. On the one hand, al Nur says there is equality between man and women (while still understanding their differences). It also speaks out against violence upon women and discriminating against them in the workforce. Yet on the other hand, during the parliamentary campaign, Burhami lamented that because of quotas, fielding women candidates was a necessary evil. Al-Nur likewise came in for criticism from liberals when they held a women’s rally featuring only male speakers. It also called in the constituent assembly to lower the age of marriage for women from 18 to 16.

Economically, al Nur has a platform that conforms with religious prescriptions, including the imposition of Islamic banking which abjures from usury, and levying a mandatory zakat or charity payment, one of the five pillars of Islam, which is usually at least 2.5% of ones’ salary.  The party’s educational ideas are also decidedly sectarian. For example, Al Nur says wants to further Islamicize public education by introducing “true” Islamic education into the curriculum. It also hopes to infuse the security sector with religion, by retraining police officers “professionally, intellectually, and religiously.”

Still, although al-Nur is focused on Islamicizing Egyptian society, it states it is against theocracy. Notwithstanding its support for the imposition of the hudud – the cutting of the hands of thieves – al-Nur is proposing, for example, that al-Azhar University be delinked from the political process, returning it to its original non-politicized role. Al-Azhar, according to al-Nur, should be allowed to independently determine the Shaykh al-Azhar and have its financial independence restored via waqf or religious endowment funding.

Foreign Policy

Al Nur is narrowly focused on domestic policy. Its foreign policy platform is both insubstantial and vague. In broad terms, the document discusses reestablishing Egypt as a regional player in Africa and in the Middle East.

Notably, al-Nur does not mention Israel in its program. This past January, however, Ghaffour dodged questions from al-Jazeera about whether he believed the peace treaty should be nullified. To wit, the closest he came to answering was referencing certain clauses he said did not respect Egypt and suggested the treaty should stand for popular referendum. The United States is likewise not a central or peripheral part of al-Nur’s agenda or public statements. Al Nur officials have not expressed overt hostility toward Washington, in contrast to GI, which explicitly condemns the United States. The GI, but not Al Nur, also has rallied for the release of Sheikh ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman, the blind cleric convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center attacks.

Other Issues

Although religion plays an important frame of reference for al-Nur, its program also covers more day-to-day issues related to helping better Egypt’s society. Al-Nur explains it wants to spread whatever wealth it attains to help build up less developed regions, which would then spur greater opportunities. As part of this, they see healthcare a human right for all Egyptians.

Al-Nur would like to retrofit older hospitals and build new ones as well as investing in new equipment and research institutes. It wants to also build new schools throughout Egypt so that students have better ratios with their teachers. Further, it would incentivize the educational system by rewarding top students with scholarships. Students would also receive jobs based on merit and al-Nur explains it would criminalize nepotism. It hopes to run public awareness campaigns at early ages to prevent drug use.

Al-Nur highlights the importance of the environment hoping to preserve the ecological integrity of Egypt while also improving its quality. It also would like to implement safety standards for commuting. In terms of prison, al-Nur will review the penal code along with reconsidering the conditions that prisoners live in. With regard to what al-Nur describes as “street children,” it hopes to channel them in a more positive path by attempting to form associations that can help train them to be a part of the work force. Lastly, al-Nur wants to foster NGOs by allowing openness to create new organizations.


Although al-Nur discusses more mundane issues in its platform, its bread and butter is religion. If Futouh had won, al-Nur would have attempted to control cabinet positions such as waqfs, culture, education, and religion. Indeed, while many have suggested that al-Nur’s leaders were pragmatic for backing Futouh, many of its grassroot shaykhs and supporters did not fall in line and either voted for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Muhammad Morsi or boycotted. It is debatable that backing another Islamist that had a falling out with the Brotherhood and was an independent candidate is nothing more than an obvious choice.

Due to the clout that al-Nur has in the parliament by securing a quarter of the vote; the United States would be remiss to ignore the party. While that might be the case, Washington should be under no illusions that it will have an easy time trying to negotiate with them on social issues important to the United States. Although controversial, Washington ought to pursue dialogue on issues such as separation of powers, free speech, corruption, and anti-trust laws, among others that are of alleged common interest. Washington must not only latch onto the Islamists, though, as it had done in the past with the authoritarian Mubarak regime. Instead, Washington should also be vigorously working with and helping the liberal forces within Egypt. The long-term interests of the United States will not be met through Islamists.